In the era of “big data“, discussions about transparent communication and structured visualisation of data are essential. In the scientific field it’s all about, on the one hand, the collection, preparation and provision of research data using FAIR Principles. On the other hand, the extraction of new knowledge using existing data is a growing area, also known as “data science“.Here I present a discerning look at these subjects from my viewpoint as a communication designer. For many years I’ve worked with scientific institutions such as the Humboldt University in Berlin and the German Archeological Institute on projects to improve the visual communication of research data. By communication I mean the analysis, structuring and design of formats and systems which make data available or process them. The aim has always been to reach as many users of the research data as possible.
Why provide data?
Scientists need to publish their work, especially so as to be recognised among the scientific community as the author and to promote discussion and collaborations. Ultimately science develops in an evolutionary fashion; knowledge generates new knowledge, it is quoted and refined. In many scientific fields, working digitally has become the norm and global data networking plays a key role. These days we assume that individual components of a publication, i.e. texts, photos, numbers/statistics, references, 3D animations, etc. will also be accessible as independent publications, each in its own data format. One could say that data can also be “published”, subject, of course, to regulations, copyright protection and standards just like traditional publications. From individual data or groups of data numerous new scientific findings can be drawn. The better we understand past knowledge, the better equipped we are to make future decisions.
The scientific community is large; here we must clearly differentiate who uses data in which fashion. In order to make data available to the user in optimal quality (usability) we must consider the complete data life cycle. I distinguish between three groups: data collectors (or providers), data administrators (or suppliers) and data users. In the end they all use data in a different way, and a provider can also simultaneously be a supplier or user. To publish research data it is in the interests of the provider that the data are stored securely, can be found by users and be correctly cited. To facilitate this, all metadata and other information should be recorded during collection of the research data. A supplier administers research data by developing structures and systems for archiving and publishing the data, also known as repositories. Repositories vary for different areas of specialisation. The more differentiated the metadata, the more diverse ways to work with the data. Information on technical parameters, geographical coordinates, photo titles and descriptions, categories and search terms, author and/or creator, licensors, DOIs, etc. allows the data to be used in diverse ways but above all it makes it identifiable longterm. The group “users” is more difficult to define, as they may work with data in unexpected ways. This can be seen for example in users’ search behaviour. Data can either be sought specifically or found indirectly by coincidence. Here keywording and cross-linking of research data plays a major role. So, in order to ensure maximal usability of data, they need to be in as informative and transparent a form as possible.
How to incorporate research data?There is nothing worse than when plenty of interesting research data exists, but nobody knows about it! To this end more and more specific scientific formats or systems are being developed that thematically address target groups and are themselves so interactive that users can work practically with the data. Data are linked with their repositories and also to Geoservers, 3D animations, authors or further online publications for example. To make these new publication formats available to a larger target group, they are accessible online via the usual browsers.
Communicate science visuallyDeveloping and/or optimising visual communication strategies serves to clarify all these steps. A close collaboration between science, IT and design has proven effective for the development of new formats. The content and technical structure of the individual components is also relevant for their visualisation, from depiction of metadata to web portals and search interfaces, or corporate design of new publication formats. Visual communication influences the use of these formats enormously, especially when it comes to new formats for which users first have to be acquired. As well as pure dissemination of information it also aims to demonstrate the diversity of research data, draw attention to it, encourage its use, and educate.